Layout Construction

Building your layout- whether you do it or we do it, the same rules apply…

While there are model train collectors who are satisfied with displaying rolling stock on shelves, most people in the model train hobby want someplace to run their trains and we call this running location a ‘layout’. At its most basic, a layout is simply any segment of track on which a train can be operated but in general, we use the term layout to mean some sort of permanent train operation facility.


Unless specifically requested otherwise, Rail Tales constructs layout benchwork (the part that holds the track and scenery) from rigid foam insulation board reinforced by dimension lumber. This is a lightweight, warp resistant, fast, and inexpensive construction method. For layouts with grades in the track or which use track which is intended to be screwed down (Kato Unitrack and Marklin C Track for instance), we typically place a layer of thin plastic called Palight ™ over the areas where track is to be laid. There are other options which might be right for a particular customer (one proficient with woodwork for instance) and we can discuss these as part of the design process.

Once you have a table or benchwork, you need to start putting things on it…

Grass Mat Layouts

Starter layouts and even some more sophisticated layouts which are flat in nature can be constructed on a ‘grass mat’. One of the biggest advantages of starting this way is that when used in combination with a foam base, track does not have to be ‘permanently’ fixed to the surface and therefore is easily changed as a design evolves. Track can typically be pinned with long wire nails.

Vinyl backed mats designed for use around model trains should be used. Paper backed mats fall apart and are difficult to apply properly, while such material as pool table felt tends to ‘pile’ and shed threads which can work their way into model locomotives and cause significant damage, even fires. Note that while the track can simply be pinned to the foam, Grass Mats MUST be permanently glued to the base (foam or plywood) in order to operate properly.

Woodland Scenics and other companies make whole systems of basic scenery designed to compliment the basic grass mat. These systems are easy for the beginner to learn.

Grass Mat layouts can evolve into complete and sophisticated systems over time. The key is to play with what you have while studying other layouts for ideas. Few layouts are ever truly ‘finished’, even when built by experts.

If you are not using a grass mat, you will generally be applying scenery to your layout after you install the track…


Track Laying

Track comes in four basic types: sectional track with roadbed attached, sectional track to which roadbed is added, flexible track and component systems, and hand-laid track.


The easiest system to use is the section track with locking roadbed. Track using this system locks together and can be broken down and rebuilt many times and still retain good operation. We sell roadbed track by Kato (Unitrack), Bachmann (E-Z track), Marklin (C-Track), MTH (Realtrax), and Lionel (Fastrack). All are good systems with various advantages and disadvantages. Kato and Marklin are the best track systems for reliability but they are set up in metric measurements that don’t match vintage track plan books. E-Z track matches old design books well but the switches are easy to jam with scenery material and the product is expensive and not that good looking. MTH is inexpensive and matches the configuration of old O gauge track plans but it is challenging to assemble. Fastrack is easy to put together and use but the appearance is poorly scaled and the turnouts are very expensive. The main disadvantage of using any section track is that the particular potential sizes and shapes and geometries are fixed and very difficult to modify.


The next easiest to use is section track without any sort of roadbed. Most track using this system MUST be permanently fixed to the layout base in order to operate properly. This sort of track is difficult to use on a full surface grass mat but it can be done if the mat is fixed well to the surface underneath and if the grass is removed from the location of the track. We carry sectional track by Atlas (Snap Track), Peco (Setrack), Marklin (K track), and Ross Custom Switches O scale track. The main disadvantage of most Section Track is that it MUST be fixed in place to operate properly. The rail joiners are insufficient in and of themselves to give the track an appropriate rigid character. It also has the design limits of its roadbed cousin. However, it is much easier to cut and modify sectional track without roadbed to fit particular design needs.

More challenging to use are the flexible track systems. These systems have a wide variety of geometry for turnouts (switches) and crossings but depend on flexible track sections to connect them. These sections have to be cut to length and all flexible track has to be rigidly fixed to a firm surface to work at all. Generally speaking, great care must be taken as well to ensure that the track is not laid in such a way so as allow the trains to operate properly. The track can be fixed in ways which the trains cannot navigate very well if at all.

Hand-laid track means gluing ties down and spiking rails to the ties. This is as time consuming and complex as it sounds. Rail Tales does not do large hand-laid track layouts because of the time required but we can and will build custom hand-laid pieces where commercial products are not available. We have our own system for doing which we can teach you.

To Use Roadbed or Not…

Section Track with roadbed already answers this question with ‘yes’. In general, roadbed should be used for all track projects because it makes working the scenery to the track much easier. However, for certain urban and yard applications especially, roadbed is not necessary, especially when working on Palight or foam or when the track is to be glued down. If roadbed is uses, cork is traditional and still very reliable and easy to place with glue and pins. Foam works so long as it is not being nailed (when nailed it is difficult to avoid ‘squashing’ the foam, making for an uneven track surface). Sticky roadbed is also available, a roll of sticky putty to which the track is ‘stuck’. This works very well for sectional track and has the advantage of allowing easy minor adjustments later. It is difficult to use with flexible track.


To Solder the Rail Joints or Not:

Track systems which have slide-on rail joiners that conduct electricity (Atlas, Bachmann, Peco, Micro Engineering, Walthers) should generally have the rail joiners soldered to the rails to improve electrical connection. However, make sure to leave a few unsoldered to allow the track to expand and contract. Use a low temperature solder such as Tix and a good soldering iron with controlled temperature tip. If you are unsure about this step, Rail Tales can demonstrate the proper technique or  solder your rails for you. The price will vary depending on complexity.


To Paint the Track or Not:

Paint the track in most cases. It looks much better and there are tools to make this easy and painless. We do regular demonstrations of how to do this by hand or with an airbrush. We do not recommend using a spray can because of the cleanup and issues with internal air quality but successful results can be obtained with proper precautions.


To Ballast or Not:

Track looks best if it is ballasted. Track systems that already have ballast should generally not have more ballast added but there are exceptions. It is okay to ballast over Bachmann E-Z track so long as one is careful and does not ballast moving switch parts. Don’t ballast Marklin, Kato, or MTH track except along the outside edges.


Manual or Remote Control Turnouts

Remote control systems are convenient and fun animation but they cost more, often a lot more, and require some knowledge to set up properly. If cost is a factor, manual switches are a good place to save money, especially since in most cases you can animate them later if you want. If you want remote control, some systems have options while others have built in proprietary controls.

Bachmann, Realtrax, and some Fastrack switches come ready to remote operate and nothing else needs be done except power them. Ross Custom Switches can be purchased with or without control systems. Kato uses its own (excellent) built in motors or added motors. Marklin turnouts come unpowered and propriety switch machines and controls must be added to operate them remotely. Atlas has proprietary switch machines but they are not very good. They can be re-armed with after market devices.

Turnouts can be controlled with after market machines: solenoids, servos, or stall motors. We generally use Peco ‘Smartswitch’ servos systems for all turnout control where we have the choice but sometimes other options (such as Tortoise stall motors) make more sense. We can discuss the option that best suits your particular situation.


Digital Command or Conventional Control?

In some cases you have no choice. MTH and Marklin new trains are all digital whether you want it or not. For other trains, if you can afford it and the scale locomotives you choose can handle decoders, go digital. It makes wiring the layout much easier and the number of features being added to digital trains is growing every year. If money is tight, HO scale trains generally can be retrofitted easily at a later date. N scale is not as digitally interesting, especially for small layouts, so it is less important. For O scale, the digital decision is very, very important. Retrofitting O scale standard trains to accommodate digital systems is difficult and often impossible. As for what digital does for you, see Technical Services


Track wiring

Track is not a great conductor of electricity and rail joints (even if soldered) are even worse, so to help make sure your trains run smoothly, we recommend you run bus wires to both rails (or to the center and outside rails in AC systems such as Marklin, Lionel, and MTH). A bus wire is simply a wire that generally follows the path of the track but which is hidden under the table. Every so often, a feeder wire is connected to the track and then fed down to connect to the bus wire. The means of connecting at either end vary. Rail Tales now uses a clip system made by NCE. This is a very fast, affordable, convenient, and certain way of connection your wires. Generally connect to the bus wire every 3 feet for N and every 4-6 feet for HO and every 8 feet for O scale. If using flex track so there are fewer joints, this can be doubled in areas without switches.

Note that MTH operators using DCS must use a different wiring system! Come in and ask.


Control boards

Although not strictly necessary, control boards make managing your layout’s activities much, much easier. These are time consuming to build but not difficult with the right materials. If you want us to build a control board for you, we will be happy to give you an estimate.

This is a typical block wiring control board. The turnout switches are not built into it but the turnout numbers are shown.


Lighting Systems

Good lighting for a layout is a must unless you are trying to do a night scene. It is best if the lights are added to the room before the layout is installed. We recommend the equivalent of a conventional 100w bulb every 8-10 square feet as a minimum (that means about 4 bulbs for a typical 4 x 8).

Building and trackside lights add a nice touch to any layout, especially with the lights dimmed. Building lights are generally a consumer installed item and usually street lights and traffic lights are as well. Button activated trackside lights are also fairly easy for the consumer to install. We usually only install these things are part of a larger layout construction project and not as a separate item.

Installing working signal systems on a layout is complicated. By working signals, we mean things that are turned on and off by things that happen on the layout or by things that are supposed to happen, rather than by direct operator control. A working train signal will actually prevent a train from entering a track section if that is what the signal is meant to do. A working crossing signal activates when a train approaches and moves through the crossing area and then shuts off. These are fun bits of action.

If you are not comfortable with these sorts of installations, Rail Tales will be happy to teach you or do it for you.


Operating systems

Layout animation is cool. We all like to watch things happen. Gates drop, wheels spin, roller coasters go up and down and around… Some of these systems are user friendly and some are not. If you have problems, we can teach you or we can do it for you.


Basic Scenery Shapes

We prefer to use ‘hard shell’ scenery systems for most layouts for three reasons. The system is very inexpensive, fast to install,  and it is easy to remove or modify  later if you change your mind. We can also do foam scenery but this costs more and takes longer and is much harder to alter. The exception is N scale where the very tight tolerances make carved foam an attractive option for its precision. Even ‘temporary’ scenery is easily done with the hardshell system.

Old method: The basic hardshell scenery which we and others have employed for years uses foamcore board to build the perimeter and portal faces and retaining wall faces of a piece of terrain, then covers the rest of the ‘volume’ with strips of cardboard and newspaper. Over this is draped plaster cloth. Once this has set up but before it dries completely, we either brushed  the surface with Lightweight Hydrocal (from Woodland Scenics, though other brands can be used too) or we covered it with Sculptamold that we shape as we go. Done correctly, either way provides a good rock face surface and ground base after it is painted. Always paint it after it sets using water solvable paints. After it fully dries for several days, regular acrylic or house paint can be used instead.

New method: Woodland Scenics introduced a innovative foil Shaper Sheet tm system that replaced the cardboard lath, newspaper, and plaster cloth portion of the program. This is MUCH faster and neater, though the sheets do cost more than plaster cloth. Rail Tales has been using this system exclusively since its introduction in the spring of 2014 and we and our clients have been very impressed. We cover it with Scultamold for strength though the Woodland Scenics plaster meant for the foil can be used as well.

Many people will sculpt foam and then cover it with plaster cloth or Scultamold or plaster or some combination of the three.

All three methods work as does the old fashioned screen and plaster technique and others. In terms of material cost, Shaper Sheet is the most expensive but it is so much faster and cleaner that we think its worth the expense. If we are being paid to do the scenery, the client definitely saves a lot of money using Shaper Sheet.

When building mountains with tunnels in them, make sure to cut access panels if you mountain cannot be lifted off the track. Things go wrong and you will need to get in there at some point.


Rock Castings

Rock castings made from plaster or Hydrocal are a safe, easy, reliable way for the beginner to make good looking rock faces. Woodland Scenics has built a whole scenery system around rock castings and the results are very dependable. If you are not comfortable with your artistic talents and don’t want to pay Rail Tales to instruct you in our methods, rock casting will give you very good results for a relatively low cost.

We like the way the rock castings look but when we are working on the client’s dime, the system is way too slow and therefore expensive for someone to pay us to do. My staff and I can sculpt rock faces far faster than we can cast and fit them but that takes practice.

Also, rock castings are difficult to blend together in larger surfaces and they are somewhat fragile.



Sculptamold is our favorite scenery material. It is cheap, tough, versatile, doesn’t shrink (much), and is non-toxic. It can be mixed stiff and molded like clay, mixed thin and pressed into a form, or mixed medium and shaped into rocks, retaining walls, foundations, tree stumps, or whatever is needed. It takes water based paint very well and can even be stained while being mixed. However, it does take some practice to get the knack of working it and it sets up pretty fast so you have to get on about your business when using it. Also, don’t put it down the drain…


Ground cover

We apply ground cover material over Woodland Scenics Scenic Glue, usually cut 50/50 with water and brushed on. Work in small areas as this stuff is sticky and sets up fast. That’s really handy for steep slopes and rock faces. If your ground material is short and will be overlaid with bigger bits, spray it with a water/alcohol mix (careful not to get it in your eyes or nose) and eyedropper or spray Scenic Cement (or Matt Medium) over it. Once this is dry you can add bigger chunks.

We custom mix our ground foam with a Fine, Course, and Static Grass combination working from dark to light. Eventually we will be selling our custom mixes but for now we can give you the formula for Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Come in and ask…


Static Grass Application

Static Grass consists of bits of material into which a static charge is introduced and which is then ‘shot’ at a surface into which a charge has also been introduced. The result is that the grass fibers stand up on end just like real grass. The effect is dramatic and awesome. However, for many, many years, static grass applicators were either really expensive or didn’t work very well. We invested in one and used it for our bigger projects but didn’t encourage customers to use it. Then Peco introduced an inexpensive and functional device and we began to use static grass on most layouts. Now Woodland Scenics has a more expensive but still affordable option which has more power and can throw longer grass bits. For many customers, a static grass applicator will allow them to make better looking ground cover much faster than the old method.

We routinely demonstrate the grass applicator at our store.



There are many ways to do trees that work. When building layouts for a client we usually use ready made trees from Busch, JTT, Grand Central Gems, Woodland Scenics, or Heiki. Why? Because the Chinese girl who makes those trees works for way less per hour than we do so it is cheaper for the customer to pay her to build them and us to plant them.

For large masses of trees, we usually use Polyfiber (puff ball) trees. These cover a large area quickly and look good in the background. These we custom make to order. We also do a class on how to employ this system. If you have a lot of area to cover, it is definitely worth taking the class.

If you have more time than money then you will want to make your trees. There are several good systems out there depending on what kind of look you want. Woodland Scenics and Scenic Express both are good options and we carry both in the store.

If you want bare deciduous trees, dig up some maple roots and wash the dirt off. Let them dry a few days and preserve them with one of the products designed for the purpose and  they make very reasonable leafless trees. Do not use them without drying and preserving them- they will sprout both mold and other fungus.

If you have both time and a bit of craftiness, you can make wire form trees. We will post a description of this process in the future but we demonstrate it in the store periodically.


Retaining walls and abutments

We love retaining walls because they allow a lot of dramatic change of elevation in a small space. Stone, concrete, wood, steel plate, we love them all and nearly every layout we’ve done has retaining walls somewhere.

The Chooch Industries retaining walls are the best and easiest to use but they are expensive. You can make your own with Sculptamold (though this is slow) or Basswood stock (stained in advance). The Woodland Scenics retaining walls are okay for concrete and stone but the wood doesn’t look right. Make your own if you want wood. Cribbing is especially effective.



Bridges are a focal point on most layouts so give them extra attention. It is best to use one of the kit bridges that you construct. The extra time is paid off in lots of extra detail. Weather them with Bragdon Weathering chalks or an airbrush or with Vallejo washes.

If you can, build a wooden bridge kit or scratch build your own out of wood. The wood can be stained in advance to look weathered and the structures go together with ordinary carpenter’s glue (preferably Titebond or the new Aliphatic resin).


Buildings are covered under Custom Model Work.

Scroll to Top